Sarah Lichtner
From Science Fiction to Reality
Sarah LichtnerOctober 31, 2013

Halloween is the day of all things ghoulish, supernatural, and otherworldly. Thanks to some recent materials science advances, some concepts that once only had a place in science fiction are now closer to becoming reality this Halloween. Here are just a few:

  • Invisibility cloaks: While today’s invisibility cloaks wouldn’t quite allow Harry Potter to successfully tiptoe past the castle’s groundskeeper, physicists have found ways to develop materials that bend or distort light—referred to as transformation optics—and that steer electromagnetic fields around an object to hide it. While the metamaterials used to make these cloaks are expensive, researchers in China have demonstrated the ability to make small-scale invisibility cloaks in 15 minutes out of readily available materials such as Teflon. While it’s unlikely that children will be donning cloaks to avoid curfew anytime soon, these cloaking technologies have real-world potential. They may prove useful in military applications by shielding various frequencies, including infrared and microwaves, or by cloaking orbiting satellites.
  • 3D-Printing tools, food, and body parts: Reminiscent of Star Trek replicators, NASA is sending 3D printers to the International Space Station to provide astronauts with an easier way to make repairs, and funding the development of 3D printers that make pizza. 3D printing is extending beyond tools and food to human flesh and organs: scientists at the University of Oxford are using 3D printing to print materials from just oil and water that mimic biological tissue. Theoretically, it could be used to deliver medicines by encasing a drug within the tissue-like structure. At the Cardiovascular Innovation Institute in Louisville, KY, researchers are aiming to use patients’ cells to generate organs, and have recently 3D-printed part of a human heart. The transplant list may soon become a thing of the past—yet I still hope the haunting organs beneath floorboards in Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart never become the future.
  • Lightsaber molecules: The Center for Ultracold Atoms, a joint venture between Harvard and MIT, has developed photonic molecules, a new state of matter similar to Star Wars lightsabers. Photons in this lightsaber-like state stay linked while constantly repelling one another. While photons are massless and fundamentally unable to to interact with one another, this team of researchers has managed to make them behave as if they have mass. The Ultracold Atoms team is still unsure of the implications of their discovery. Perhaps the lightsaber photons will battle with the dark side—dark matter, that is.

While these advances work to make fiction a reality, that shouldn’t stop you from embracing the worlds of Luke Skywalker, Star Trek, and Harry Potter this Halloween. In fact, inventors may be able to draw inspiration from science fiction. A class at MIT, called “Science Fiction to Science Fabrication,” focuses on analyzing how the world of the imaginary relates to reality. Perhaps next year there will be a few more cases of science fiction transitioning to practical societal applications. Until then, Happy Halloween!